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Has Science Made God Superfluous?

The Grand Design

By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Publisher: Bantam Books

Pages: 208 pages

Price: $28

Review Author: John P. Moench

John P. Moench retired as Vice President of Western Union Telegraph Company's International Department in 1986. His latest book, Lifeless Liberties, Fatal Freedoms: A Catholic Engages His Culture, is currently awaiting publication.

The popularity of books attacking God and religion in the twenty-first century seems at first glance a remarkable phenomenon. But there’s a reason for such popularity. In a secular culture that tends to regard science as the stand-in for God, it is only logical to expect a strong reaction against those who are critical of the secular way of life. Conversely, there is a high level of support for well-known scientists who attempt to refute the source of those critiques — i.e., Catholic teaching. And so, the popularity of the literary atheist should come as no surprise.

Although the promotion of a godless society by atheist authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al., have left an imprint on thousands of readers, the malevolent assault they mount against those they consider their enemies will probably count against them in the long run. But in the meantime, the market for God-denying books continues to grow, and other more insidious purveyors of atheist propaganda are appealing to that market and to the money that its exploitation brings. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s recent book, The Grand Design, is a good example. Here we have a pair of physicists — one a proven genius in his field, the other an accomplished man of science — who have published a book laced with mostly good science, but interpreted and channeled toward one obvious objective: the denial of God’s existence.

The tone of the book is low key, free of ranting and raving, mildly humorous in parts, and largely inoffensive in its presentation — but it moves relentlessly toward its purpose. Most lay readers will find themselves playing a role similar to that of the average motorist, who, broken down in a small mountain town, listens befuddled to a “master” auto mechanic specify the technical reasons why the motorist’s car won’t start, and why it will cost so much money to fix.

The master auto mechanic’s razzle-dazzle, mimicked by Hawking and Mlodinow, is most pronounced in a chapter titled “Alternative Histories.” Here the authors present a technical description of physicist Richard Feynman’s “sum-over-histories” process (a mathematical breakthrough into the probability calculations of quantum theory). Feynman created his process to deal with the behavior of photons and electrons in the tiny world of quantum interaction. Hawking and Mlodinow would have the reader believe that Feyn­man’s probability techniques can be applied to the macro world, the world we know and experience. The blur of scientific “gee-whiz” statements is designed to ease the reader into accepting this preposterous idea. As an example: “We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes.”

Under the wrap of such description, Hawking and Mlodinow conjure up a background for applying the Feynman quantum calculations to the macro world, a claim Feynman himself would have ridiculed. The authors offer nothing new in terms of physical theory. They would have us believe that the physics they describe in the book represents the new cutting edge of science. The truth is, both of the major physical hypotheses Hawking and Mlodinow use to develop their many-worlds idea are fifty-plus years old.

Feynman developed his Quantum Electrodynamics theory — “sum-over-histories,” as the authors refer to it — in the 1950s. It worked very well in practice, uncannily predicting probabilities for certain quantum particles to move and to emit others. Interestingly, Feynman was never entirely comfortable with its mathematical validity, going so far as to say that “renormalization,” the mathematical technique used in the process, is a “shell game” and “hocus pocus.”

The second physical concept, called the many-worlds theory, was originally created in 1954 by Hugh Everett, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. As he himself put it, “After a slosh or two of sherry with friends,” he began “thinking up ridiculous things about the implications of quantum mechanics” — a strange way to birth an important physical theory.

In spite of the unusual background circumstances surrounding both of the bases for Hawking and Mlodinow’s argument, the processes of science, which they describe so well, and some of their conjectures, hold the reader’s attention. That said, there is nothing new in the book that could possibly be construed as adding to the old list of “no God” arguments.

Grand Design tells us that the universe created itself, and not only that, but it created itself from nothing. Perhaps because they recognized that the first principle in the metaphysical branch of philosophy is that nothing comes from nothing, Hawking and Mlodinow unequivocally state early on that “philosophy is dead,” the victim of a surging science. They thereby clear the deck for their theory of spontaneous self-creation from nothing.

The foundation for the authors’ speculation is Quantum Electrodynamics, a process that deals with probabilities — the chance of photons and electrons moving from location to location, and the probability of photon creation in the process. This phenomenon, obviously, can be demonstrated only in the world of sub-atomic particles. Hawking and Mlodinow say that “for most practical purposes quantum theory does not hold much relevance for the study of the large scale structure of the universe.” In full support of this limiting point of view, Cornell University physicist N. David Mermin has critiqued Everett’s many-worlds theory, saying, “Quantum mechanics is a device for enabling us to make our observations coherent, and to say that we are inside of quantum mechanics and that quantum mechanics must apply to our perceptions is inconsistent.”

Yet Hawking and Mlodinow propose to apply the quantum wave-function collapse — the condensing of a series of sub-atomic probabilities into a single actual event as noted by an observer — to the macro world, on the feeble grounds that back in time the universe was sub-microscopic itself. They admit that to make this application meaningful, a quantum theory of gravity is essential — yet such a theory remains nothing more than a dream. They minimize this monumental deficiency by intimating that we are on the very verge of achieving the theory: “We don’t have a complete quantum theory of gravity, the details are still being worked out…” (italics added).

Details indeed! Most physicists believe we are many giant steps away from the resolution of the quantum-gravity formulation. When and if it comes, and when and if it is incorporated into M Theory (also at the moment an incomplete hypothesis), the science of physics will have achieved its long sought “theory of everything.” As of now, that achievement seems a very long way off.

As for the so-called multiverse hypothesis, there is little that can be said to overcome the sheer fantasy of the concept. If an infinity of worlds is posited, anything can be justified — whether in physics or in other disciplines — with one of the worlds satisfying any desired outcome. Before even beginning to accept a multi­verse, the idea of it creating itself, and doing so from nothing, must be swallowed. The authors tell us that the pervading force within the “void of nothing” is gravity, and it is through the action of this gravity that the creation process occurs. Would it be politically incorrect to inquire where this gravity came from? Hawking and Mlodinow do not tell us.

If we examine the lucky ticket we bought, winning for us a lifetime in a universe exactly right for our demanding needs, it might show us exactly how demanding those needs are. The authors address this topic in a chapter titled “The Apparent Miracle,” describing the incredible fine-tuning evidenced by both our solar system and the universe itself. It seems clear that had any one of the many razor-thin tolerances demanded by our universe (and confirmed by Hawking and Mlodinow) been under-provided for, or exceeded — by even a quantum eyelash — human life would never have arisen. The weight of the fine-tuning evidence, much of it coming only within the last decade or so, has convinced Hawking and Mlodinow of the truth of what is known in science as the “strong anthropic principle.” As they put it, “The fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves.”

This is a major concession for an atheist, and as such is denied by many secularist scientists. But are Hawking and Mlodinow really opening the door to God? Not at all. They say that the “extreme fine tuning of so many laws of nature could lead at least some of us back to the old idea that this grand design is the work of some grand designer. But, that is not the answer of modern science.” Notice that Hawking and Mlodinow do not state that this is merely their position, but that it is the position of all of “modern science.” Really?

The authors trump this concession to the anthropic principle with their ace in the hole: the many-worlds theory, a hypothesis that only a small fraction of the scientific community accepts today. Once again, an infinity of worlds can prove anything one desires to prove. The weakness of the Hawking-Mlodinow position is further displayed by the fact that they can bring to bear no more support for their theory than to insist on a restatement of their claim that “the multi­verse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”

Perhaps they should have titled this chapter “The Obvious Miracle.”

This brings us full circle to the reason the book was written. The professional treatment of much of the science, including a skillful and comprehensible rendition of M Theory and superstrings, is what we would expect of Hawking, but none of the scientific subjects covered in this book would make headline news. Could a work limited to the elaboration of established scientific hypotheses expect much of a market today? Not likely. But if the book’s material were twisted into a backdrop for an assault on the concept of God, a lucrative market, as described earlier, might be anticipated. The authors managed to package their work in this manner, giving it a rotation away from their atheistic competitors by soft-pedaling their attack — God is not dead, but He really isn’t necessary.

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